Amazing Places

The Cecil Hotel Is Known as LA's Most Haunted for Many Horrifying Reasons

Tis the season for scary stories, so we've rounded up a few tales of serial killers, tragic endings, untreated mental illness, and infanticide. Oh, did we mention that they all happened at the exact same place? Welcome to L.A.'s Cecil Hotel.

A Haunting History

We're not too big on ghost stories here at Curiosity, but fear not — you don't have to get into the supernatural whatsoever to be completely freaked out by the story of the Cecil Hotel. In 1924, hotelier William Banks Hanner poured $1 million (roughly $13 million in today's dollars) into building a hotel in Los Angeles with an opulent marble lobby, stained-glass windows, and alabaster statues. His budding hospitality business seemed like a sure thing. Unfortunately, the Great Depression was right around the corner. In the decades to follow, the hotel and its surrounding area slowly declined. Today, the neighborhood's name has become synonymous with a down-on-its-luck place: Skid Row. By 1931, the hotel had seen its first suicide: W.K. Norton, whose body was discovered beside a pile of poison capsules.

More suicides followed — so many that it isn't worth cataloging all of them — but in 1937, 25-year-old Grace E. Magro became the fourth person to die at the hotel when she fell from the ninth story, her body tangled in telephone wires. Police were unable to determine whether it was suicide, an accident, or something more insidious. One of the more heartbreaking incidents came in 1944, when a young woman gave birth in a hotel room and threw her newborn out of the window in a panic. But the Cecil's first foray into crime history came in 1947, when Elizabeth Short (also known as the Black Dahlia) was allegedly spotted having a drink at the hotel days before her murder. This story is in dispute, but it's worth mentioning if only for its popularity. But even if you toss out the Black Dahlia connection, it's not the only notorious true crime case embedded in the Cecil Hotel's history.

Famous Killers

Trust us when we tell you that we're glossing over a lot of awful stories as we skip forward in time from 1947 to 1984. Richard Ramirez (better known as the Night Stalker) was the terror of coastal California from April 1984 to August 1985. In less than a year and a half, he murdered no fewer than 38 people, ages 9 to 83, in a killing spree that spread all the way from Orange County to San Francisco. And when he was operating in Los Angeles, his base of operations was (you guessed it) the Cecil Hotel. He even disposed of evidence, including bloody clothes, in the hotel's dumpster.

The Night Stalker has pretty high name recognition — and his crimes were particularly heinous — but the story of Jack Unterweger has another particularly creepy wrinkle. An Austrian serial killer, he committed his first murder in his home country in 1974 and was convicted and sentenced for his crime. About 10 years later, he released a memoir entitled "Purgatory or the Trip to Jail: Report of a Guilty Man," which became a bestseller and helped convince officials he had reformed. Spoiler alert: he hadn't.

It wasn't just the cops that he'd fooled. His story was soon told as an example of the prison system's success, and eventually, he even began working as a journalist and public broadcasting host on the true-crime beat. His specialty? The heinous murders of sex workers, just like the crime that had led to his conviction. In 1991, he checked into the Cecil to cover a story about street crime in Los Angeles. While he was in the city, three sex workers were attacked and killed in a way that mirrored Unterweger's crime — and police were able to definitively tie the journalist to the murders. Most disturbing of all was the fact that, as police on both sides of the Atlantic began to more closely examine the case, they realized that Unterweger had also committed many of the very same murders that he had covered on air. Many suspect that he chose the Cecil specifically because of its connection to Ramirez, but it's impossible to tell. Unterweger killed himself in prison shortly after his second conviction, tying the ligatures with the same distinctive knot used on all of his victims.

A New Chapter of Horror

You might not be surprised to learn that in 2011, the proprietors of the Cecil Hotel attempted to shrug off their history by rebranding themselves and taking on a new name (Stay on Main). But they weren't able to leave behind the horror. 21-year-old Canadian tourist Elisa Lam wasn't murdered, but her death is one of the most haunting in the building's history. In February 2013, an employee discovered her body floating naked in the water tanks on the hotel's roof.

The case was ruled an accidental drowning, but there are some very strange elements that cast the event in a less understandable light. For one thing, to get to the roof, Lam would have needed a staff key, which wasn't found with her body. Her cell phone was also mysteriously missing, both from her body and from her room. But the most disturbing aspect is the video.

The night that Elisa Lam disappeared, a security camera in the elevator captured four minutes of extremely disturbing footage. She ducks into the elevator, crouches low as if hiding, presses herself up against the wall, and occasionally peeks out into the hallway as if looking for a pursuer. She pushes many buttons, but the elevator doesn't move, and the door remains open. At one point, she even steps out into the hallway and begins gesticulating as if speaking with someone — but nobody is there. Was there somebody just off camera? Was she experiencing a mental health crisis? At this point, there's no way to know. But we do know that the next time we go to Los Angeles, we'll be making other arrangements.

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The Cecil isn't the only source of terrifying stories in Los Angeles. Burl Barer's true crime book "A Taste for Murder" (free with your trial membership to Audible) opens with a dead body in otherwise perfect health and only gets stranger. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas October 4, 2018

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